Wireless Quilts

Recent technical and regulatory events have made it possible for citizens to share wireless Internet access today at speeds higher than expected for the expensive "3rd Generation" (3G) mobile telephones major telephony operators are trying to provide in the near future. Someone has to buy a high-speed Internet connection from an existing ("upstream") provider in order to support a ("downstream") wireless community, but now the community of users has the power to do things that only the connection provider could do in the past.

Whether wireless guerrillas blanket the world with inexpensive high-speed Internet access before the big players crush them remains to be seen. Wiring the world over the past century, from the telegraph to the Internet, disrupted old social patterns and led to the creation of new ones. Unwiring the world over the next decades will disrupt existing social arrangements just as profoundly, in several different ways:

Untethering the Web colonizes the world with computation, pervading environments far from the desktop with networked intelligent devices. Computation, once available only through wired access points, becomes available everywhere.

Telecommunications networks become available in places where wires weren't previously economically feasible. One in eight people in Botswana have a mobile telephone. Some of the most advanced wireless LAN experiments in the US are on Indian reservations that don't have telephone lines.

High data-speeds made possible by radio-based technologies are likely to multiply the effects of mobile Internet in unpredictable ways, as well. In digital media, quantum leaps in speed often trigger qualitative jumps in the ways people use them.

Combine high transfer rates, yesterday's supercomputer on today's chips, and p2p methodology, and many things presently unimagined become possible.

The bottom-up force of wireless freenetting and top-down force of 3G mobile telephony are heading for decisive conflicts over the next five years, but an eventual showdown has been inevitable since the US government locked its regulatory framework onto a technical understanding of wireless technologies as it stood in 1912-34Recently, those who are knowledgeable about the law and about the state of the art of radio technologies are challenging the idea that chopping up the frequency bands into specific pieces of property is the most efficient way to use the resource. Telecommunication companies around the world paid more than $150 billion to various governments in the late 1990s for licenses to use portions of the electromagnetic spectrum for future commercial purposes such as broadband access for mobile phones. At the same time that governments were auctioning off the electromagnetic spectrum, rapidly evolving wireless communication technologies started making it possible to treat the spectrum as abundant rather than scarce. Technologies known as "spread spectrum," "wideband" and "software defined radio" have explosive implications. If the spectrum ceases to be a scarce resource because of technological innovation, then the government doesn't need to regulate its use to protect its owners, the citizens, in the same way it did when the spectrum was first regulated at the beginning of the radio age. The neighborhood wireless activists are up against powerful financial interests and political powers that be, from AT&T to the FCC. But they have Moore's, Metcalfe's, and Reed's laws on their sides.